When the River Was Clean....
A Journey into River Edge
Each Spring, a diverse army of volunteers descends one weekend upon the Hackensack River to . A variety of boats, volunteers from boy scouts to Senior Citizens prowl the banks and the river itself. They come back with assorted debris from cans and bottles to full size home appliances and a lot in between.
As the river is cleaned, one cannot help but pause to contemplate what it was decades ago at a time before such a committed clean-up effort was made necessary.
Through the first decade of the 20th century the river local was a source of food and fun. Shad and herring were caught in it. The New Bridge Boat Club staged regattas and swim contests; canoeists could rent boats at both New Bridge and Old Bridge (River Edge Road). There were sandy shores at Sandy Beach (Eden Beach) near the site of the River Edge Diner.
John Thompson, long time clerk, is quoted as remembering jumping into the river from the wreck of a schooner which had gone aground years earlier on the east bank of the river.
But then it all stopped.
We have already related the story about how the damming of the river in the early 1900’s to create of the Oradell Reservoir ended Oradell as a .
According to a local history, River Edge’s use of the river for recreation purposes was undermined in 1911 when it became necessary to enlarge the Oradell Reservoir.
The accompanying dredging operations made the river so muddy it became unfit for any type of use. Large quantities of silt were churned up and the spawning habits of the shad were upset. The usefulness of the river for recreational purposes was destroyed.
Another factor, write those histories, was the practice of dumping raw and partially treated sewage into the water prior to the construction of a water treatment plant in Little Ferry. Historians speak of the worst of the dumping occurring during World War I from Camp Merritt at what is now the site of the monument at the Cresskill Circle.
For many years too many folks were resigned to the fact that the Hackensack would always be nothing more than a dumping pool.
Then in the 1960’s, it was a River Edge Girl Scout Troop, Troop 127 that inspired the start of a clean-up, an effort that continues almost 50 years later. The scout group received national fame for a write-up about them in Life Magazine.
This publicity helped inspire the formation of a Hackensack River Coordinating Committee in 1967. They sought to develop a comprehensive shoreline plan – plans that once included a Lake Hackensack as well as places for birding, hiking canoeing and concerts.
These days many folks are still at it, though the vision has been changed a bit. The Hackensack Riverkeeper helps act as a multi-community focal point in these efforts.
Back in the 1930’s a former Bergen County Sheriff was quoted in the Bergen Evening Record as hoping “the lethargy of present-day officialdom will be replaced by surging alertness. Stupid lack of initiative will be replaced by unselfish action. There is still hope of salvaging the River”.
Eighty years, thanks to the efforts of many, that hope remains.